Building peace, states and hybrids – International operations in post-conflict countries

Development Policy,Peace & Security02 Feb 2010Chris van der Borgh, Mariano Aguirre

International missions that aim to support stability, peace- and state-building in crisis areas are often unsure of how to move forward. The idea is gaining ground that a ‘revisioning’ of such interventions is needed. Hybrid is the new buzzword.

International organizations are playing an ever-increasing role in processes of reconstruction, peace- and state-building following civil wars. These efforts have produced mixed results. The number of armed conflicts has fallen substantially since the end of the Cold War, partly as a result of UN peace missions. 1 But the strength of these operations lies in terminating or mitigating the violence, while ambitions to achieve sustainable peace by introducing reforms often run aground. In many post-conflict countries, after peace operations come to an end, the risk of a crisis or a resumption of violence remains.

Over the past two decades, there have been important changes in the ideas about and practices of international involvement in states in crisis. Mandates and missions have been constantly reviewed, and international strategies have shifted from peacekeeping to peacebuilding to state-building. UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has provided a good synthesis of this evolution: ‘The concept of state-building is becoming more and more accepted within the international community and is actually far more apt as a description of exactly what it is that we should be trying to do in post-conflict countries – building effective systems and institutions of government’.

Reflecting this ambition, the new UN strategy document for peacebuilding, presented on 22 July 2009 by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, identifies a range of areas in which the international community should respond. These include addressing security priorities such as rebuilding the army and police, strengthening the rule of law, supporting political processes, building the civil sector, establishing tax and public administration systems, and promoting stronger economies through job creation.

International state-building strategies are based on the premise that without state institutions it is not possible to organize social reconstruction, deliver services, develop economically and establish the rule of law. But in reality, building states is a Herculean task and, according to some analysts, an impossible mission. 4 In the fast-growing literature in this area, the practices and the future of these operations are hotly debated. 5 A key issue is the problematic relationship between the models, strategies and underlying assumptions of international policies on the one hand, and the local political and social realities and processes in crisis areas on the other.

Liberal peace

A growing criticism of the dominant peace- and state-building paradigms is that they do not take into account the political realities in countries that are the object of interventions. In the most complex cases, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq, state-centred analyses are flawed, because the local political orders differ fundamentally from the Western ideal type of states. In a recent article, Volker Boege and colleagues at the Berghof Research Center, Berlin, challenge the mainstream discourses on state failure, arguing that ‘instead of adopting the narrow state-centric view that is currently guiding the fragile state discourse, we suggest going beyond it and trying to comprehend what truly constitutes political order in those regions of apparent fragility’. They propose using the concept of hybrid political order to emphasize that there are ‘diverse and competing claims to power and logics of order that overlap and intertwine’.

This proposal ties in with the growing recognition that the use of violence and the nature of war to be understood in their specific contexts. 8 Signing peace agreements and building state institutions do not necessarily end violence and war. This is generally recognized for cases like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where (regional) subsystems of power are still strong and a situation of ‘neither war nor peace’ exists. It is, however, also true for cases regarded as success stories of peacebuilding, like Mozambique and El Salvador. 9 In those cases, new forms of violence that came up after the civil wars had come to an end, according to Dennis Rodgers of the University of Manchester, UK, can ‘in many ways be seen as representing a structural continuation of past political conflicts’. 10 Thus, even if fighting between former warring parties does not resume after a peace agreement, violence can still be an endemic problem. The current international prescriptions for ‘liberal peace’ are not necessarily the answer to local wars and endemic violence.

The idea of the ‘liberal peace’ has, in one way or another, informed most peace operations so far. 11 But its assumptions – that the best way to build peace is by introducing a model of free markets and liberal democracy – are problematic for at least two reasons. First, as Håvard Hegre of the University of Oslo has argued, the idea originated in the developed world, where economic development was a crucial precondition for the liberal peace. 12 Second, due to the built-in tensions of state-building and democratization. In particular, state-building is a destabilizing and often violent process. 13

The political and economic reforms that are considered to make peace sustainable can themselves generate new social tensions, thus producing a ‘liberal peacebuilding paradox’. Oliver Richmond of the University of St Andrews in Scotland has criticized this ‘belief’ in a liberal peace. He takes issue with the idea ‘generally assumed by policymakers, theorists, and activists that peace has an ontological stability enabling it to be understood, defined, and thus created’. He argues that there is a lack of involvement of local stakeholders in the discussion of what peace entails in different contexts. Most peace operations are rather top-down undertakings in which ‘peace that is implemented is merely a product of multiple intervener objectives with perhaps only a marginal renegotiation with its local recipients’. 14

‘Revisioning’ peace- and state-building

The problems encountered in international peace operations are now being taken into account in the literature on peace- and state-building, leading to a wide range of ideas on ‘how to move forward’. The most radical option is that external actors should keep their hands off violent conflicts and let local actors have their own wars or create their own peace and political order. These arguments refer to the role of war in state-building and the strength of a victor’s peace as opposed to a negotiated peace. 15 At the other extreme is the idea that the current model is right, but that more resources or more ‘local ownership’ are needed for successful implementation. 16 This is the case, for instance, in some of the explanations of why things went wrong in Afghanistan after 2001. President Barack Obama’s decision to increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan is in line with the idea of the need for more resources.

However, a diverse but growing group of scholars is engaged in ‘revisioning’ to try to find a new balance between the assumptions and strategies of current international peace- and state-building interventions, and the local realities. In these discussions, two kinds of revisioning can be distinguished. 17 The first approach takes into account the problems and perils of current strategies, and concludes that this is as good as it gets. This might be called ‘good enough peace- and state-building’. The second approach searches for more emancipatory or participatory perspectives, and explicitly questions the assumptions of the interveners.

‘Good enough peace- and state-building’

The ‘good enough’ approach sees peace- and state-building as an elite-driven process between international actors and local elites. In most cases, these negotiations lead to or strengthen a hybrid political order. The core argument, as David Roberts of the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, puts it, is that external actors ‘cannot substitute for or replace political behaviours derived from needs, experiences, histories and evolutions quite different from those from which Western democracy is derived’. 18 However, Michael Barnett of the University of Minnesota, USA, and Christoph Zürcher of the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, argue that the interests of local and external actors are fundamentally opposed. 19Using game theory, and assuming that local and international actors interact strategically with each other, they create a ‘peacebuilding game’ that can lead to different outcomes. In their view, compromised peacebuilding, which strikes a balance between the interests of the various actors, is the most likely outcome of this process.

This compromise means that the liberal political ideals of external agents are not fully realized. Instead of transferring new institutions, these agents ‘mainly transfer the ceremonies and symbols of the liberal–democratic state’ – the end product being a hybrid political arrangement. 20 The assumption of this theory – that local society is homogeneous and that local actors have similar interests – is problematic, however. One of the striking characteristics of war-torn societies like Afghanistan, Guatemala or Algeria is the wide diversity of affinities and interests of different national sectors. Interestingly, Barnett and Zürcher analyze how international actors can contribute to hybrid political orders, but they also argue that these limits of state-building and democratization ‘may not be such a terrible result’. 21 The end result may still be that local political mechanisms are created that do not fully resemble the ideal of the liberal state, but that promote more accountability and ‘compel individuals to consult, deliberate, and negotiate with one another as they decide what they consider to be the good life’. 22

In sum, international actors should ‘be real’ and realize that this is as good as it gets. The policy implications of this option are that international actors do not necessarily have to change their ‘liberal’ agendas, but first they should realize and accept that the outcome of their interventions will be a hybrid form that is different from their ideal.

Hybrid orders

The second revisioning approach is more critical of the liberal peacebuilding project, since it pleads for new international strategies that focus on local realities, local institutions, local knowledge and local agency. For example, in a recent article in The Broker, Seth Kaplan argued that international actors should emphasize ‘facilitating local processes, leveraging local capacities and complementing local actions so that local citizens can create governance systems appropriate to their surroundings’. 23 Other authors 24 have called for a revision of the practices and assumptions of international interventions, and for a more emancipatory model. Their criticisms focus on:

  • The dominant and neocolonial role played by international actors, particularly in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, where state-building followed international military actions.
  • The problem that the global economic system exacerbates the subordinate status of war-torn societies. The lack of integration of ‘fragile states’ into the global financial, economic and trade systems makes it impossible for them to fulfill the tasks specified by the international community.
  • The failure to recognize the history, culture, ownership and forms of community organization. State building should not (only) focus on central state institutions, but promote local political arrangements and social networks that can provide protection and services.
  • The fact that liberalism is not the only normative construct that informs local peacebuilding and thus seeks to raze the ideological walls that separate liberal peacebuilders from their subjects.
  • The weakness of state boundaries and structures, plus the myth of enduring state sovereignty. The international system has difficulties accepting the reality of statelessness and blocks possible new departures in state formation.
ANP / Humayoun Shiab – A hybrid kind of peace. NATO military officials and Afghan elders discuss the security situation in Kandahar, Afghanistan, November 2007.

These critiques of ‘top-down’ models of international peace- and state-building take issue with the liberal assumptions of international interventions because they are not grounded in local political and social realities. A change of strategy may require different concepts.

The pros and cons of using the concept of ‘hybrid political order’ as a possible alternative to the concept of state weakness is discussed in a recent publication by the Berghof Research Center. A hybrid entity may have pre-eminent customary law, traditional societal structures and traditional authorities. Informal indigenous societal institutions with their own logic and rules may function ‘within the (incomplete) state structures’, as Volker Boege and colleagues explain. 32 Most contributors to this discussion agree that the concept can be helpful, although the implications for the strategy of international actors are unclear.

Oliver Richmond recently observed that it is ‘through the antagonistic political contact between liberal peacebuilding and local dynamics, not the virtual states and dependencies that have sprung up through neoliberal forms of state-building, that a more sustainable, everyday peace, developing more locally resonant forms of peacebuilding, has actually emerged’. 33 It is in and through this encounter that a ‘post-liberal peace’ can emerge, one that is ‘less encumbered by idealistic prescriptions’. The outcome will therefore not be a copy of a blueprint, but rather a ‘local–liberal form of hybridity’. 34


This emphasis on the local grounding of external interventions, processes of negotiation between local and external actors, and the creation of hybrid order, raises a series of new questions. To what extent and in what ways are hybrid political orders able to build peace? 35Should international actors let local actors develop their own arrangements, even when these models resemble the political systems that previously gave rise to war and crisis? 36Should external actors seek to rebuild, reshape or influence hybrid political orders? And what room for manoeuvre do international actors have in this regard? And, isn’t there a risk of relativism by assuming that non-liberal orders are for the benefit of the local citizens?

These questions can, however, not hide the fact that the nature of local social and political life is much more complex than the templates and prescriptions of current international interveners seem to assume. This complexity emphasizes the need for fresh ideas about the involvement, strategic objectives and room for manoeuvre of international actors in such environments. But while mainstream peacebuilding theory has to face the problem of promoting a model that does not work in many contexts, critiques of the liberal peace critiques should not romanticize the hybrid orders in ‘the South’.

The authors wish to thank Martina Fischer of the Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, Berlin, Germany (, and Martijn Klem of the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR), The Hague, the Netherlands.


  1. For evidence that peace operations have contributed to peace, see SIPRI (2008) SIPRI Yearbook 2008: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK;
    Mack et al. (2007) Human Security Brief 2007. Human Security Reserach Project; Doyle and Sambanis (2006) Making War and Building Peace: United Nations Peace Operations, Princeton University Press;
    Van der Lijn (2006) Walking the Tightrope: Do UN Peacekeeping Operations actually Contribute to Durable Peace? Rozenberg, Amsterdam.
  2. Quoted in R. Paris and T. Sisk (2009) The Dilemmas of State Building: Confronting the Contradictions of Postwar Peace Operations, Routledge London, p.10.
  3. UN (2009) Report of the Secretary-General on Peacebuilding in the Immediate Aftermath of Conflict, A/63/881-S/2009/304, 11 June 2009. View PDF
  4. For a critical discussion of the ‘mission impossible’ argument, see Co Colijn (2009) Interventions, The Broker 15: 32.
  5. Paris and Sisk (2009); Chandler (2009), Statebuilding and Intervention. Policies, Practices and Paradigms, Routldege, London; Call and Wyeth (2009), Pugh, Cooper and Turner (2008); Fischer and Schmelze (2009); Charles T. Call (see note 31 below); Jarstadt and Sisk (2008), Berghof – see note 34 below; Doornbos – see note 33 below.
  6. Volker Boege, Anne Brown, Kevin Clements and Anna Nolan (2009) On hybrid political orders and emerging states: What is failing – states in the global south or research and politics in the West?, in M. Fischer and B. Schmelzle (eds) Building Peace in the Absence of States: Challenging the Discourse on State Failure, Berghof Handbook Dialogue Series no.8, Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, Berlin, pp.15-31. View PDF
  7. Ibid, p.24. A hybrid political order combines characteristics of traditional rule (such as tribes, clan structures, etc.) modern forms of authority, and international involvement.
    See also Migdal (2001) who argues that ‘states are no different from any other formal organizations or informal social groupings […]. Their laws and regulations must contend with other, very different types of sanctioned behavior, often with utterly unexpected results for the societies they purport to to govern – and for states themselves’ (p.12). See also Jim Woodhill (2008) Shaping behavior: How institutions evolve, The Broker, 10: 4–8.
  8. See Paul Richards (2005) No Peace, No War: An Anthropology of Contemporary Armed Conflicts. Ohio University Press, Athens, p.19; Cristopher Cramer (2007) Civil War is not a Stupid Thing, Hurst, London.
  9. Raaymaekers (2007) says the political system in DRC has shown great resilience in the face of war and political ‘transition’. See Timothy Raeymaekers (2007) Sharing the spoils: The reinvigoration of Congo’s political system. Politorbis 42(1): 27-33.
  10. D. Rodgers (2009) Slum wars of the 21st century: Gangs, mano dura and the new urban geography of conflict in Central America, Development and Change 40(5): 949-976.
  11. The idea of ‘liberal peace’ is partly founded on the thesis that states that liberal states are more peaceful in terms of both their internal and external relations. See Roland Paris (2006) Bringing the Leviathan back in: Classical versus contemporary studies of the liberal peace. International Studies Review 8: 425-440.
  12. See Håvard Hegre (2004) The Limits of the Liberal Peace, PhD dissertation, University of Oslo.; Hegre (2005: 41).
  13. See, among others, Ayoob (2007) State making, state breaking, and state failure. In C. Crocker et al: 95-114; Senghaas (2007) On Perpetual Peace: A Timely Assessment. Berghahn Books, New York; Charles Tilly (1992) Coercion, Capital and European States, AD 990-1990. Blackwell, Oxford.
  14. Oliver Richmond (2006) The Transformation of Peace, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK, p.121.
  15. Both Chandler (2009) and Paris and Sisk (2009) make this distinction between these two extremes. For the extreme position of non-intervention (or against ‘premature peacekeeping’), see Edward N. Luttwak (1999) Give war a chance, Foreign Affairs,July/August.
  16. See, for example, J. Dobbins et al. (2003) America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq. RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, p.146, who find that sufficient time, manpower and resources are the most important factors in determining the success of a mission: ‘low input of military and civilian resources yields low output in terms of security, democratic transformation, and economic development’. The new UN policy mentioned earlier emphasizes the idea of ‘ownership’. A key point in debate is the degree of international influence (guidance or directorship?) in relation to local actors. Paris (2004) has argued for more international guidance/directorship. Roland Paris (2004) At War’s End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict. Cambridge University Press.
  17. See Miles Kahler (2009) Statebuilding after Afghanistan and Iraq, in Paris and Sisk (2009), pp287-303.
  18. David Roberts (2009) Hybrid polities and indigenous pluralities: Advanced lessons in statebuilding from Cambodia, in: D. Chandler (ed) Statebuilding and intervention: Policies, Practices and Paradigms, Routledge, London, p.166.
  19. University of Minnesota and University of Ottawa, respectively. See Barnett and Zürcher (2009).
  20. Ibid. (2009: 24)
  21. Ibid. (2009: 48).
  22. Ibid. (2009: 49). See also Roberts (2009: 183-4) who proposes ‘to “kick-start” pluralism […] by supporting national and local level multi-party elections’, while not rigidly imposing all the other elements of a Western democracy.
  23. See Seth Kaplan (2009) Rethinking state building: Fixing fragile states, The Broker, 16: 12.
  24. See for instance Michael Pugh, Neil Cooper and Mandy Turner (eds) (2008) Whose Peace? Critical Perspectives on the Political Economy of Peacebuilding, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK;
    Oliver P. Richmond (2006) The Transformation of Peace;
    Jose Manuel Pureza (2007) Do States Fail or are they Pushed? Lessons Learned from Three Former Portuguese Colonies, Paper presented at the International Studies Association 48th Annual Convention, Chicago, USA, February 2007.; Oliver Richmond (2009) A post-liberal peace: Eirenism and the everyday, Review of International Studies 35: 557–580; Kristoffer Liden (2009) Building peace between global and local politics: The cosmopolitical ethic of liberal peacebuilding, International Peacekeeping, 16(5): 616–634.
  25. Astri Surkhe (2009) The dangers of a tight embrace: Externally assisted statebuilding in Afghanistan, in Paris and Sisk, p.227.
  26. Mark Duffield (2003) Social reconstruction and the radicalization of development: Aid as a relation of global liberal governance, in Jennifer Milliken (ed) State Failure, Collapse and Reconstruction, Blackwell, Oxford, pp.291-312.
    David Sogge (2009) Repairing the Weakest Links: A New Agenda for Fragile States, Project report, FRIDE.
  27. See the chapters by Jan Selby, The political economy of peace processes, and Susan Willett, ‘Trading with security: Trade liberalisation and conflict, both in Pugh, Cooper and Turner (2009) pp.11-29 and 67-84, respectively.
  28. Pugh et al. (2009) pp.394–395. Jonathan Goodhand (2006) Aiding Peace? The Role of NGOs in Armed Conflict, Intermediate Technology Publications, Rugby, UK, pp.62–64.
  29. Katia Papagianni (2008) Participation and state legitimation, in C.T. Call and V. Wyeth (eds) Building States to Build Peace, Lynne Rienner, Boulder, pp.49-71.
  30. Lidén, 2009
  31. Martin Doornbos (2008) State collapse, civil conflict and external intervention, in P. Burnell and V. Randall (eds) Politics in the Developing World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.249-267.
  32. Volker Boege et al. (2008) On hybrid political orders and emerging states: What is failing – states in the global south or research and politics in the West?, in M. Fischer and B. Schmelzle (eds) Building Peace in the Absence of States: Challenging the Discourse on State Failure, Berghof Handbook Dialogue Series no.8, Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, Berlin, pp.15-31. View PDF
  33. Oliver P. Richmond (2009) Liberal Peace Transitions: A Rethink Is Urgent. OpenDemocracy, 19 November:
  34. Ibid.
  35. See Von Trotha (2009: 44) who argues that ‘non-state orders too […] hold a substantial potential for peace and order that we cannot ignore’.
  36. See Mehler’s (2009) critical contribution to this discussion.